A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 583 – The Silent Scream

The Silent Scream – October 4th, 2011

When we started this project we knew there were a few things we’d be adding to the collection. For one, we were missing some movies we could have sworn we owned. For two, we knew that the collection was heavily influenced by Andy’s particular tastes since he’d purchased the vast majority of it, so we wanted to even it out a bit. For three, we knew there’d be things we’d think of or that hadn’t come out on DVD. And then there was everything else we’ve added. It’s an odd assortment, really. Things we’d never really considered owning until they were recommended by friends or that we’d decided we really wanted not just to watch, but to review. This is one of those last types. Because it was directed by Andy’s uncles.

Horror and slasher films aren’t really my thing. And while I can enjoy a suspenseful movie, suspense and horror together aren’t my favorite combination. I get tense and that tension takes a while to dissipate. So I admit, I wasn’t looking forward to this. I wanted to watch it, yes, but I wasn’t really looking forward to how I’d feel afterwards. Fortunately, it turned out to not really be what I was expecting, in a good way. There is suspense and there is some blood, but it’s not the sort of “oh god oh god something’s coming to get me” tone that I can’t deal with. It’s more of a “who will survive and how exactly will all of this play out” tone. That, I can deal with.

The story begins with college student Scotty Parker looking for a place to live after transferring to a new school. The actress playing Scotty, Rebecca Balding, reminds me so strongly of Elisabeth Sladen that I found it impossible not to imagine that Scotty was somehow a clone of Sarah Jane Smith. I imagine having Daleks or K-9 show up mid-movie would have run the whole thing right off the rails, but still. That’s how my brain works. Anyhow, Scotty ends up moving into a rather large house right by the ocean. Mrs. Engels and her son, Mason, have plenty of extra space so they’ve let out four rooms. The other residents are all students. There are Doris and Jack, who already live there, and then there’s Peter, who shows up when Scotty does. And all seems fine, until one of the four gets killed after a night out. And I think you can probably predict at least part of what happens next. I mean, this is a slasher movie. Of course someone else dies.

The interesting thing here is that there really aren’t that many bodies. It’s not a movie full of gore and death. It’s full of odd people and suspicious circumstances. I suppose most horror fans would be disappointed at the lack of blood, and most suspense fans would want more tension. And that’s fine. I understand that. But I like that the tension comes not from wondering what’s going to jump out at the main characters so much as from when they’ll be attacked and who it will be who attacks them.

If I was going to make a complaint about the movie it would be that the eventual reveal of the Engels family secret has so little to it. I mean, it’s a good one and all, and it’s clearly hinted that there’s something terrible in the house and once you know what it is and what’s happened it makes for good background. But it gets so little time because it’s the big secret. On the other hand, I know that there was more footage filmed that would have tied into the background (you can see Mason watching some of it at one point, as if it’s a movie he’s flipped to on television) and it got thrown out as unusable. In fact, a fairly large portion of this movie was reshot entirely and then edited together with what was usable from the original material. And I’ve got to hand it to everyone involved that I couldn’t spot the shots and bits and pieces that were from the older material in with the new. Fantastic editing there. But that those scenes were taken out says something. Either they were really poorly done and simply couldn’t be used in any form other than as a cameo on a tiny television screen, or they didn’t fit the narrative. Since they weren’t reshot, I’m going to have to go with the latter. And while both could be true, their absence in the movie as it stands definitely points to a problem in fitting them into the story. You don’t want to lessen the dramatic tension by giving away too much, but you also don’t want to bog down the climax with too many flashbacks at the end once the secret’s been revealed. Still, I couldn’t help but wish for more foreshadowing. Something to point back to and say “Oh! So that’s what that meant! That’s why that was there! That’s why that character said that!” Something to make it feel like more of a cohesive part of the story instead of just a twist.

I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie. It wasn’t quite what I expected and that’s a good thing. I expected it to be about as far from my preferred genres as possible and I expected it to leave me tense and/or disappointed and I wasn’t either by the time the credits rolled. It’s not a big budget horror masterpiece, obviously, but it’s still fun. And hearing the interviews with Rebecca Balding and Ken and Jim Wheat, I’m really pretty impressed with the process involved in making the movie, taking existing footage, editing down to what was still usable, bringing the cast back, reshooting, editing, etc. I’m not saying it doesn’t have flaws, just that I enjoyed it despite what flaws it has and I think it’s pretty damn cool that it holds up like it does.

October 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Silent Scream

October 4, 2011

The Silent Scream

The latest “Scream” movie came out today at my local Blockbuster today. Number two thousand I think. Amanda and I don’t own any Scream movies of course, but we do own this seventies slasher film, which has “Scream” in the title. Not because we wanted to own a seventies slasher film but because this movie marks the grand Hollywood debut of my famous film-maker uncles.

The history of this movie as I understand it is this: film-maker Denny Harris had an incomplete and not particularly good slasher film he had made, and he brought the Brothers Wheat in to do a re-write and shoot some pick up shots to complete the movie. So they got a couple of the actors who had been in the original project back and shot around the existing footage. At least that was the plan. What actually happened was that Ken and Jim pretty much made an entirely different movie that uses a little footage from Denny’s cut (and for a fraction of the budget.)

I had never watched this before tonight (since I was eight when it came out and far too young to see it then.) I’ve always had the impression that my uncles were a little embarrassed by this movie, though as I watch it tonight I couldn’t say why. It’s a perfectly good murder mystery and horror film – heavily influenced by such films as Psycho.

The movie starts out wit a bit of a teaser. A group of policemen and detectives are investigating an old house. It’s a gruesome crime scene with multiple corpses and blood coating the wall. The mystery lies in the identity of the bodies and how they came to be there.

To find out we have to follow a young college student named Scotty Parker who has just transferred to a new school in LA. (It’s not stated to be Occidental but it’s pretty easy to recognise it in shots that take place there.) There’s no student housing available so she ends up having to hunt down an inexpensive place to live off campus.

The house she ends up renting out a room in is a large place on a hill with a collection of other college students already living there. There’s an annoying preppy twerp who is rolling in his daddy’s money. There’s a handsome blond hunk. There’s a friendly girl who bonds with Scotty right away. Then there’s the creepy introverted teenaged son of the owner of the house who shows the kids their rooms and tells them the rules. Chief among the rules? Don’t disturb his mother Mrs. Engels, who lurks quietly in her attic.

This being the kind of movie it is kids eventually start getting stabbed to death. The question is, who is the killer? Is it the mild mannered Mason Engles? Is it his quiet an disapproving mother? And what’s up with the secret stairway leading up from the basement. Who is the mysterious figure behind the walls?

I will say that the dramatic plot twist (which probably came from my uncles and not from the original film because it involves actors who were only in their re-shoot footage) is almost ludicrously over the top. As I said earlier there is some Psycho influence here and I think that might be what they were going for. It’s not as weird as the famous twist at the end of Sleepaway Camp, but it’s up there. Maybe if there had been some hints earlier in the film to set it up it would have been less jarring, but I do understand the difficulty of getting footage to match between different productions three years later which would make it hard to add any subtle hints in. Still – when Mrs. Engles says “haven’t you guessed the truth about her… and yourself?” I felt there wasn’t any particular need at that point in the film for a twist like that. Not only had I not guessed, I had no idea that there was even a hidden truth there TO guess. I suppose it does let Mason go around the bend, and that’s fun to watch.

As I watched this for the first time tonight I played a kind of game with myself. I tried to figure out what bits were the original movie and what bits were written and shot by my uncles. Knowing that the movie is eighty-five percent “reshoot” it’s pretty seamless. I honestly don’t know where the original ends and the new begins. The end product, though, is a fairly good movie that deserves some recognition for at least being better than it might have been.

October 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Laserblast

August 17, 2011

Laserblast

Amanda and I had plans to watch the Rifftrax live presentation of Jack the Giant Killer in the theater this Wednesday. Sadly it appears that it is not playing in our local theater, or they’re sold out already, so we found ourselves denied our little dose of Mike, Kevin and Bill making fun of a cheesy movie. Instead we chose to watch yet another movie that would not be in our collection were it not for our love of MST3K.

I blame Amanda for this movie. She snatched it up when she was working at TLA because it was famously the last movie riffed by Mike and the bots on Comedy Central. However, we have only watched that episode once before because it was so sad and upsetting to have our favorite television show come to a close like that. (Of course the show came back on the Sci Fi channel, but there was a long and uncomfortable period of uncertainty before that.) Our recollections of this movie were fuzzy.

I remembered the stop-motion turtle aliens. I remembered the necklace that gave the hero in the movie a rash. I remembered the irritating presence of Eddie Deezen. I did not remember Keenan Wynn as the crazy vet with an obsession about alien invasions. I didn’t remember the pot-smoking policeman. I had generally forgotten how poorly put together and aimless this film is.

Some of the movies that showed up on MST3K over the years actually had some redeeming qualities, but this is not one of those movies. It’s a sad collection of disconnected scenes masquerading as a movie. The plot revolves around an alien weapon found by a nihilist country hick in the desert after a rampaging green gunman is killed by a pair of turtles. The turtles in question are the coolest thing in the movie – all stop motion, and they deliver some of the best performances. By comparison their human counterparts are surprisingly wooden.

There’s Billy Duncan, who is depicted as somewhat of an anti-social rebel, who finds the abandoned alien firearm. There’s his girlfriend Kathy who just wants him to get along with other people and drags him off to a friend’s birthday party. There’s Eddie Deezen as a slimy, whining rival of Billy’s who challenges him to drag races and tries with one of his slimy friends to molest Kathy. There’s an annoying pair of comic relief patrol officers who pull Billy over for speeding. There’s a secret government organization that is seeking something in the desert and suspects that Billy has something to do with it.

The alien gun only works, you see, when used in conjunction with an amulet that Billy wears around his neck. This amulet corrupts him, however, turning him into a sort of emaciated incredible hulk who is green with high cheekbones and white contact lenses. This monster goes about killing all the hateful and annoying people in Billy’s life – mostly by blowing up cars with his laser gun. Of course Billy has no recollection of these episodes and can’t understand why everybody seems to be against him.

In the end he converts completely into the green monster and somehow ends up on a Hollywood backlot street set where he proceeds to blow everything up until the aliens from the beginning show up and kill him, saving us from the movie and providing blessed relief.

What’s peculiar about this movie is that it clearly has some kind of a budget. The aliens look cool. There are a LOT of explosions, with cars igniting all over the place. There are even some recognisable actors, most notably Roddy McDowall, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. My suspicion is that the creators of this film used the excitement about Star Wars, which came out the same year as this, to raise funds for their film saying that they were making a sci-fi epic of some kind. I feel bad for any backers duped by the promise of easy money from a Star Wars style film when this movie is what their money bought. (My theory is based on the fact that Star Wars is mentioned in the dialog at one point and the rampaging monster Billy blows up a Star Wars billboard – probably a sign in the minds of the film makers that their masterpiece was going to blow Star Wars out of the water.

Let us be clear. This movie is no Star Wars. It is an unappealing mess of a movie filled with pasty seventies backwood country hicks. No that we’ve watched it for the project I expect that I probably will never watch it again. Oh, and Leonard Maltin gave it two and a half stars.

August 17, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Piranha Part Two: The Spawning

August 7, 2011

Piranha Part Two: The Spawning

I bought this movie as a companion piece to our Shark Week this year based on little bits of information I knew about it even though I had never seen it before tonight and had never seen the movie it is supposedly a sequel to. The DVD we purchased proudly bore a sticker on the cover claiming that it was “From the director of Titanic and Avatar,” which amused me since I knew it was a cheesy movie about rubber fish on strings attacking people. How could I pass such a thing up?

Now I had known that the original Piranha movie was produced by the inimitable Roger Corman and I had thought somehow that this movie was as well. It made sense in my head that James Cameron would have gotten his start directing under Corman in the same way that Ron Howard did. Sadly it appears that I was mistaken. This movie was produced by, co-written by, and co-directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis – which looks to me as though it has to be an anagram for something because no way is that a real name. (Okay – so it’s Italian and he’s a producer of schlocky Italian horror movies, although if he had one more ‘t’ in his name it would be an anagram for “A good vision is tits” which seems to be his motto.)

This movie shares more in common with seventies Italian “breastploitation” movies than with the cheesy gorefest I had been expecting. I guess after watching so many made-for-TV shark movies in a row I was unprepared for a film that starts right out with a couple getting naked in a submerged wreck for some scuba-sex before they are eaten (mostly off camera) by the creatures from the title. Not that I’m complaining. Before we get to the actual plot of the movie there’s a fair amount of gratuitous nudity and if I had owned this as a thirteen year old my right arm probably would have fallen off. Sadly, the breasts only temporarily distracted me from the fact that this is a pretty badly flawed film in general.

Flaw number one is the painful comic relief. The movie is set on a resort island and the local hotel (on the eve of their annual spawning festival, when they gorge themselves on migrating fish or something) is filled with a colorful array of caricatures. There’s a gold-digging young woman who wants to snare a doctor. There’s an annoying couple who make a lot of noise about how completely besotted they are with each other. There’s the pair of nudist women on their boat who decide to raid the resort’s kitchen to resupply their yacht. There’s the skeevy cougar who wants to have sex with one of the resort employees. There’s the dynamite-fishing hick and his mute son who add local color. It’s a nauseating group of characters, and frankly a lot of the fun of the movie is waiting for them to get eaten. (I have to admit that by the end of the movie I was somewhat disappointed that not all of the annoying characters died and that some of the more sympathetic ones did.)

Then there’s the lead characters. A marine biologist woman has a job at the resort working as a dive instructor, which nets her a free suite at the hotel which she shares with her son. Her ex-husband works for the local police. One of her scuba diving students is a sleazy stalker who spends most of the movie trying to get into her pants – and eventually succeeds. What’s never adequately explained is why Anne the dive instructor has broken up with Steve the police chief in the first place. Aside from his kind of manic episodes where he pretty much accuses her of killing a woman at the morgue he seems like a nice enough guy, and clearly they both dote on their son (who spends the entire movie working as a cabin boy for a foppish moron with an improbably well endowed daughter.) I guess he needs to be out of the picture so that Tyler can have his sleazy way with Anne.

Part of my confusion with this whole plot, and I’ll admit that I tuned out for vast sections of it, was that the only actor I really felt was worth watching at all was Lance Henriksen as police chief Steve. He feels sometimes like he’s playing two different roles since he has to be the skeptic who stands in the way of Anne’s investigation but he’s also the hero at the end of the movie who goes out to save their son when the fish start eating everybody on the island. It’s confusing to me, but – again – I wasn’t paying very close attention. Furthermore, their son Chris doesn’t seem to be in much danger of anything except being trapped in a boat with a scantily clad teenager who barely fits in her top – not a fate most teenagers would want to be rescued from.

Another odd thing in this movie is its score. I don’t know quite how to describe it. It has a vaguely classical feel to it with occasional bursts of electric guitar, and it never blends very well with the visuals. It also is poorly edited – cutting abruptly at the end of some scenes or fading in and out awkwardly. It almost feels like a temp track at times, but no, that’s the actual score.

What saves this movie is the piranhas themselves. Flying piranhas on strings. Piranhas that squeak like styrofoam when they’re above water and warble amusingly when under water. They’re always shown out of focus or in extreme close up (with a few exceptions) because they are not in any way articulated (except for their flapping wings in some shots.) I don’t think their jaws even move. When they attack people the actors have to hold the fake fish against their necks and smear themselves with fake blood to simulate being eaten. It would seem that the piranha of this movie have mastered the skill of leaping directly at a human’s jugular and that’s how they kill most of their victims. They remind me of nothing so much as the deadly rabbit from Monty Python’s Holy Grail – except that they’re less convincing.

I suppose that this is a fun enough movie. It’s stupid, badly dubbed at times, and filled with annoying characters, but many of them get killed by hilariously cheesy flying fish. That makes things alright in my book. Just don’t claim that this is a James Cameron film, because it has very little in it that feels like it bears his mark at all. Except maybe Lance Henricksen crashing a helicopter. That feels like the Cameron I know and love.

August 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 1 Comment

Jaws 2

placeholderAugust 4, 2011

Jaws 2

“Just when you thought it was safe to do a shark week project for your movie blog…”

For the last three days of shark week Amanda and I are going to watch all three of the completely unnecessary sequels to the granddaddy of all shark attack movies: Jaws. I’ve seen Jaws 3 before, and I’ve seen the laughable end of Jaws: The Revenge before, but I’ve never seen this movie. I kind of think that most people haven’t. It’s an unnecessary sequel that was inevitable after the blockbuster success of the first movie.

I was amused because right at the very beginning of the movie I thought the girl playing Tina Wilcox – “Miss Amity Island” looked extremely familiar to me. I just couldn’t figure out where I knew her from. I thought it was something less than great – maybe a MST movie. I just couldn’t place it, so I checked IMDB, and damned if it wasn’t Ann Dusenberry – the star of Lies, which was a very cool psychological thriller my uncles made in the mid Eighties. It blows my mind that after all these years I recognised her even if I couldn’t place her.

This movie is mired in the seventies. Far more so than the first Jaws film. For some reason, even though the first film takes place in 1975 and features all of the fashions thereof during the segments that take place on land once the three lead characters take to the sea to hunt down the shark it becomes fairly timeless. This movie stays closer to shore – pretty much reprising the first half of Jaws but with more kids in peril. And oh, are the fashions displayed by this cast of teenage characters heavily dated, from hair to clothes. It’s impressive.

Amanda complained as we watched this, and I have to agree, that it brings nothing fresh to the Jaws world. Indeed this film is almost a re-make of the first movie except that it doesn’t feature the male bonding and adventure of the second half. Instead it concentrates on Police Chief Brodie and his attempts to convince the recalcitrant officials of Amity Island that there is a giant shark threatening the beaches. You may recall in the first movie the scene where Brodie’s son is riding a little boat in an estuary away from the beach and the shark threatens him? Well expand that single scene into a full length movie and you have this film.

Roy Scheider returns as Martin Brodie and his primary rival continues to be Murray Hamilton as Mayor Vaughn. When vacationers start to disappear and a killer whale with big chunks taken out of it washes up on a beach Brodie instantly knows what’s up: there’s another big shark out there. But there’s a big hotel development going up on the island and the pressure is on to show the place in the best possible light so naturally Mayor Vaughn resists any attempts to close the beaches. It ends up being a big show down and when Brodie causes a panic on the beach after thinking he’s spotted the shark (this scene was much cooler in the original Jaws with very cool cuts between Brodie’s POV and the dawning horror on his face – but what do you want with a lazy sequel like this) the local council fire Brodie for disturbing the peace.

Meanwhile all of the local teens are spending the summer taking day trips out in a variety of little boats and generally acting like teens (making out and stealing their fathers’ beer and such) so when everybody finally does become convinced that the new shark is real all the children are far away from the island and isolated on their little craft. Naturally it is up to Brodie, all alone with a little launch that somehow in the five years of being police chief for an isolated island town he has never learned how to drive, to defeat the monster and save any surviving children.

This was not directed by Stephen Spielberg, and it shows. Spielberg, in the first Jaws movie, very wisely gave as little screen time to the rubber shark as possible. This time around it is shown rather too much, and it is not at all convincing or horrifying. In an attempt (I assume) to make the monster more frightening or to give it character or something this shark becomes scarred and burned during one of its attacks, but the end result is that it looks even more fake than before. The “burned flesh” of the shark looks more rubbery and silly than ever before. It’s like people are being attacked by a poorly articulated singed muppet.

I said that this sequel was lazy and I meant it. It has nothing whatsoever new to contribute to the first film and re-treads the more tiresome parts of that movie. The first Jaws doesn’t really come to life until Quint, Brodie and Hooper set out to hunt the monster down – and this movie doesn’t seem to understand that at all. It’s more about the shark attacks than about the pitting of man against an unstoppable force of nature. Also, I have to say as a viewer jaded by years and years of monster attack movies the ending feels flimsy and unsatisfying. Perhaps in the day it worked, but now I am distinctly left wanting more.

August 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

July 20, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I’m not quite sure how to start out this review. This movie is one that leaves a lasting impression – I’d even say that it is a major accomplishment in film making – but it feels uneven and disjointed. I’ve never been sure if that’s an intentional choice or if it is an inevitable result of attempting to adapt this source material. I mean, did Gilliam make a disjointed film deliberately because that was his vision or did his adherence to the book force him to make a film that didn’t flow in the way most of his movies do? I suppose it doesn’t make much difference.

I’m a huge fan of Terry Gilliam, as anybody who’s been reading this blog could easily tell, and Johnny Depp is astonishing in this as he is in everything he does, but this isn’t their movie, really. This is Hunter’s movie through and through. It’s a movie full of great quotable voice-overs, but they’re all quotes from the book. Depp’s amazing performance channels the mad energy of the famous gonzo reporter as he brings to life this tale of a drug addled rebel assigned to report on a motorcycle race in the Nevada desert outside of Las Vegas.

I enjoy this movie, in spite of its episodic and uneven feel, but it’s difficult to review it for a couple reasons. For one, this is a movie that is all about dealing with a chemically altered perception of the world. In the story Hunter S. Thompson’s mis-adventures in Las Vegas there is a truly implausible amount of drug use. Acid, cocaine, ether, marijuana, mescaline… just about every hallucinogen known to man and some not invented yet is consumed in mass quantities by Hunter and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo. I wouldn’t say that the movie glorifies drug use, but it attempts to show how deranged a man can become if drug use becomes commonplace. My personal experience with illegal narcotics is virtually non-existent, so although I’m fascinated by the twisted world depicted here I don’t have anything to really compare it to in my own life.

My other problem in writing this review is that although I’ve read excepts from the book this movie is based on (most of which are quoted word for word here) I haven’t read the whole thing. That makes it really hard to talk about the things I’d really like to explore. I’m curious about how accurately Gilliam captures the book, and about how much of the movie is directly from the page, but I don’t really have any answers there.

What I can say is that this movie has a wistful, desperate, slightly sad quality to it. My favorite parts of the movie are the more introspective bits where Depp-as-Thompson reflects on the sad fate of the naive movement of the sixties and the ultimate futility of the San Francisco drug culture. That’s part of the problem with the movie, really. It has this this really touching moment about two thirds of the way through the film that feels like it should be the climax, but then Hunter finds himself returning to Las Vegas to cover a district attorney conference on narcotics and the movie limps on for another drug addled forty five minutes or so. Not only does it feel somewhat repetitive, with Hunter trashing another car and hotel room, but it loses that introspective air and gets more and more crazy and desperate. Much of the final act is told in flashback as Thompson attempts to piece together scattered memories of the past weekend, and it just doesn’t feel as honest as the first half of the movie. I strongly suspect that this is exactly the nature of the source material – but I have no way to tell until I’ve read the book itself.

Johnny Depp as Hunter (as Raoul Duke) is absolutely spellbinding. He’s all profound wisdom and spastic insanity and drug fueled paranoia. I love the way that Hunter has written himself into the story as a character in his own drama. (It makes me want to watch Adaptation.) I suspect that there is probably some root of truth in much of this tale but that it is heavily exaggerated for effect, but that’s part of the fun of it. Gilliam does a great job giving life to the ravings of a drug addled mind. There are only a couple actual special effects shots done in post-production as almost all the madness is captured life and in camera. That’s very Gilliam. Then there’s Benicio Del Torro as the nefarious Dr. Gonzo. His performance is even more impressive than Depp’s in many ways because his character is so much less sympathetic. Dr. Gonzo is an instigator, a trouble maker, given to violence and rudeness. Del Torro commits himself to this character with unreserved dedication and provides most of the fuel that drives the plot, such as it is. He works absolutely perfectly with Depp to bring these characters to life.

There is so much about this movie that I really enjoy. It’s a brave film that does a good job of making something unflattering and pretty scary feel real and important. It’s full of wit and dry humor as well as laugh out loud moments. Even so, it is such an uneven and oddly paced movie that it doesn’t completely work for me. I’m going to try reading the book now to see if it helps me to appreciate this movie more.

July 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Superman (1978)

July 16, 2011

Superman (1978)

My recollection is that I saw this movie sometime around my seventh birthday. At the Pi Alley theater in Boston. I was probably just a little bit young to appreciate it at the time. I knew, of course, who Superman was, because what kid doesn’t? I did not know who Marlon Brando was or that it was a big deal to have a legitimate actor playing Superman’s father. For a seven year old it’s not such a big deal to see Superman flying around, that’s just what he does after all.

As I view it now, more than thirty years later, I see it as a conflicted movie that does a lot of fantastic world building and legitimizes Superman, making him believable on the big screen, but which cannot escape from a cartoonish feel in places and which doesn’t seem able to figure out what to do with Superman once it has established him as a character.

What this movie does best is laying out the origins of Superman. There’s a lengthy part at the beginning that takes place on the doomed planet of Krypton with Marlon Brando as Jor-El the prominent scientist who realises that his planet will explode in just a very few hours. This is by far my favorite part of the movie. It is great science fiction with huge alien vistas, completely foreign technology, and not a single moment of camp or comedy. Sadly, however, it can’t last forever. Jor-El puts his young son Kal-El in a spiny little spacecraft and sends him off to Earth, where he should be safe.

Kal-El crashlands in a cornfield in Iowa where the Kents, a kindly childless couple, find him. They name this strangely strong alien child Clark and raise him as their own. Here the move does something else kind of cool. Clark very clearly grows up in the fifties. This makes sense for the character of Superman – he’s such a hopelessly optimistic guy with slightly out-dated morals. (The actual character of Superman, as we learned when we watched Secret Origins, was created in the forties prior to US involvement in World War II.) When Clark reaches a point in his teenaged years where he wants answers he finds himself compelled to go north into the arctic wastes, where he builds the Fortress of Solitude and actually departs Earth for a quick lesson from the recorded memories of his father that apparently takes him away from Earth. This explains why, when the bumbling Clark Kent shows up in Metropolis in the modern day (well the nineteen seventies) he still has that corn-fed out-of-touch naivete. Lois Lane actually comments on his peculiar use of the word “swell.”

I love all this. I absolutely love Christopher Reeve as Superman – he was Superman through my young life and it’s hard to imagine anybody else in the role. He also does a great job as the awkward, stuttering, slightly dim Clark Kent. Where the movie begins to lose me is with Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor with his bumbling sidekick Otis and his moll Ms. Teschmacher. The movie has done such a good job of making a comic book superhero believable that when his nemesis turns out to be a campy all-for-laughs blowhard it somewhat deflates the movie. Then things get even more muddy with the movie’s famously unlikely ending.

In the final moments of the movie, after Superman has dashed all over the place saving the world (or at least the state of California) he finds that he was unable to save Lois. In his grief he flies so quickly around the Earth that he is able to reverse the direction it spins on its axis, thereby reversing time. Now nevermind the fact that spinning the Earth back does not reverse Newton’s arrow – what most irritates me about this ending is that it gives Superman a new power, and an outrageously powerful one at that. He’s already got flight, speed, strength, invulnerability, super breath, heat vision and x-ray eyes – now you’re going to let him be a time traveler too? It’s just plain stupid. You do not make Superman more interesting by giving him extra abilities – you make him more interesting by exploring his human and inhuman nature. At least that’s my feeling.

I really like some things about this movie. It’s also in many ways the grand-dad of comic book super hero movies, decades before the fad really took root. Still, it disappoints me in other ways, and I can’t help feeling that even after all these years I still haven’t seen a Superman movie that completely works. Maybe the next one will capture that elusive spark, or maybe Superman is just too powerful a character to ever work in the silver screen. Who can say?

July 16, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

No Country for Old Men

June 6, 2011

No Country for Old Men

In my time at Blockbuster I had a habit of buying Oscar winning or nominated movies with the intention of watching them at some point in the undefined future. I didn’t always get around to them. Actually – I almost never got around to them. The sad fact of the matter is that in general the kind of movie that wins Oscars is not really my cup of tea. The academy of arts and sciences seems to lean towards serious, intense and often very dark movies. As a result of this behavior I have a bunch of movies in my collection that I’ve just never had the urge to watch all the way through. Movies like Capote and Brokeback Mountain and There Will Be Blood and The Wrestler. And this movie.

The truth is that I have tried to watch this before. I love a good Coen Brothers movie and of course many people had raved about this when it came out. I love Tommy Lee Jones, and I had heard how awesome and powerful Javier Bardem was as the ruthless and unstoppable hit man in this film. It’s not a feel good movie though. It’s not quirky or strange or funny. It’s a brutal suspense crime thriller – sort of a return to Blood Simple but relying less on being slick or cool or edgy. Instead it is gritty, brutal and realistic – relying on its simplicity and sparse detail rather than on the Coen Brothers’ usual camera tricks and style.

This is pretty much a western set at the end of the seventies. A massive drug deal goes bad in the Arizona desert with a whole mess of people killed and two million dollars in cash st stake. As with much of the movie we only see the aftermath – a hunter tracking game through the wilderness comes upon the carnage and eventually finds the valise with all the cash in it. Llewelyn Moss is a simple self sufficient man, and although he knows it’s probably a pretty stupid movie he can’t pass up that money. So he takes it. And soon he has the Mexican drug cartel and American crime boss who both want the money after him. Most disastrously though he has a brutal and completely cold blooded killer out for him as well.

Anton Chigurh, the killer played by Javier Bardem, is a force of nature. He kills the two mob agents who hire him to hunt down the money, just because killing is what he does. He travels with a strange silenced shotgun and a pneumatic gun designed to slaughter cattle. Every person he comes across ends up dead – and he kills them all with quiet efficiency. What’s so fascinating about this character is that he appears so rational. One of the other characters in the movie says that he seems to have a sort of twisted code that he lives by. Chigurh is so terrifying because he is so steadfast and sure of himself and so befuddled by what appears to him to be the irrelevant ramblings of his victims. He seems genuinely puzzled as to why they keep telling him that he doesn’t have to do this, because in his mind clearly he does.

All this is wrapped up in a bleak kind of fatalistic atmosphere by the sheriff who has been following the unfolding events. Tommy Lee Jones is Sheriff Bell, the man who knows what’s going on and finds himself powerless to stop it. The most human moments in the movie, and the sentiment behind the title, all come from Bell’s sense that the world has become darker, more violent, more brutal and that his sensible form of law enforcement is no longer sufficient. He tries to keep things under control, and most of the time he’s the only character who seems to understand everything that’s going on. His final monologue, which has nothing to do at all with the events in the movie but everything to do with the sentiment, is as affecting and powerful a piece of acting as I have ever witnessed.

I do like this movie. I don’t particularly enjoy it, but I like it. I like it for its craft, for the performances. It’s a movie full of long silences, powerful tension, intense larger-than-life people. There are great huge expanses of the film that have no dialog at all, where we just get to experience the action with the characters, following their thought process. It’s unusual to find a movie that has virtually no musical score, and that’s part of what adds to the power of this film. It’s a kind of heightened reality that works so perfectly to communicate the brutal and unforgiving world depicted here.

Once again, as so often happens, the Coen Brothers have created something powerful and unique. Equal parts Unforgiven and Touch of Evil. It’s all about alienation and cruelty and the evil that people are capable of. It’s not thrilling or uplifting, and it doesn’t leave you feeling better at the end than you did when you started out – and that’s unusual for a big budget film. It’s why it won a mess of Oscars and ended up in our collection. I won’t say that I’m going to be watching it very often, but it is an achievement and I’m glad that I own it.

June 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

June 3, 2011

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

This movie is a strange, unsettling, and wondrous unique gem. Much like the confectionery magician Mr. Wonka himself.

I had not realized until watching this tonight that the first draft of the screenplay for this movie was actually written by Roald Dahl. I guess I had just always had it in my head that this film was such a departure from the book, and I knew of Mr. Dahl’s legendary disdain for the final product. Even the title of the movie doesn’t match that of the book. I was surprised when during the opening credits it declared that he had done the screenplay as well as the book the movie is based on.

I have so many memories and associations that blend together when I’m watching this movie. I remember how creepy and disturbing I found the movie on my first viewing of it on television in the early eighties when I was eight or nine years old. Particularly how much the capering of the orange and green Oompa Loompas fueled my nightmares. I have fond memories of re-discovering the movie in my teenage years when I had a chance to watch it on VHS and begin to appreciate it for the insane genius that it is. Of course most of all I remember growing to completely love Gene Wilder’s portrayal of the mad genius himself.

This is, after all, his movie. We don’t even get to see Willy Wonka until the movie is a third over, but Wilder’s performance is so mesmerising, so charming, so sinister that he overshadows everything else. This movie isn’t Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – it’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It’s a movie that celebrates a crazy man who lives in his own fantasy world creating unique and somewhat mad inventions for children. In truth that’s pretty much how I picture Roald Dahl himself. I always imagine him in my head with a giant Salvadore Dali mustache (I know he looked more like the illustrations of the BFG, it must be the last name similarity that does it.) There’s one segment of this movie – during the Wonkatania journey through the dark tunnel – where random and unsettling images are projected behind the actors and it reminds me of nothing so much as Un Chien Andalou. In my mind the three insane geniuses, Wilder’s Wonka, Dahl and Dali, blend through this movie and become almost reflections of each-other.

Need I sum up the plot? I would hope that most people were pretty familiar with at least one form of this story by now be it the book or one of the two movie versions. Young and destitute Charlie Bucket has been raised by his Grandpa Joe with tales of the amazing Willy Wonka and his maddeningly secret chocolate factory where nobody ever goes in or comes out and the most amazingly impossible confectionery creations are constructed. One day it is announced that Mr. Wonka will actually allow five lucky people (each to be accompanied by a family member) to visit his factory and win a lifetime supply of chocolate. The winners will be those lucky enough to find five golden tickets hidden inside Wonka branded candy bars.

The first third or so of the movie details the mania stirred up by the golden tickets and Charlie’s sad life of desperate poverty. (As an aside: I have always said that I felt J.K. Rowling cribbed the start of the first Harry Potter book from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The lives of young Charlie Bucket and young Harry Potter are full of similar extremes with Charlie’s four grandparents sharing a single bed in his one room house while Harry is living with the spiders under the stairs. Even Rowling’s writing style at the start of the Potter series reminds me of Dahl’s prose.) Each of the five lucky tickets is found by a different child, with Charlie being the last of course.

Then the rest of the movie is the tour of the chocolate factory itself which is an utterly insane wonderland of fantastical inventions and OSHA violations. It’s a kind of strange morality tale where each of the children suffers a grizzly fate as a result of their particular vices. There’s an over-eater, a gum chewer, a spoiled brat and a TV obsessed couch potato. (The impact of the moral is somewhat lessened in this particular telling since Charlie and his Grandpa Joe also succumb to temptation and ignore Wonka’s sage advice at one point. I’ve never liked that about this movie.)

There’s so much that is magical about this movie though. I watched it tonight with an eye towards trying to figure out what portions of the script were Dahl’s, and his signature is all over the movie if you’re looking for it. Particularly in the first half of the movie I felt his dry sense of humor in many of the television news casts following the fervor created by the golden tickets. There are several sort of short stories intended to show just how obsessed people have become over Wonka bars – such as the last case of bars in the UK being auctioned off or the woman whose husband has been kidnapped and is being ransomed for her unopened Wonka bar collection. These felt very much like the kind of twisted thing that I associate with Roald Dahl.

When Gene Wilder finally shows up on the screen though, after all that build up, he effortlessly takes command and from there on out it is his movie. Yes, the chocolate factory is mad and wonderous. Yes the Oompa Loompas are strange and disturbing. Yes, the young actors portraying the five children area ll quite impressive. It is Gene Wilder however, with his classic transformations from restrained to manic, that makes the movie what it is.

I won’t say that the film is without flaw. The songs sometimes make the movie too cloying for me and hurt the overall pacing. (Particularly the candy man song and the long song Charlie’s mother sings.) The special effects of the day (1971) are not particularly special, and the sets, although clever, are clearly held back by budgetary restraints. (The exception to both these issues is the “World of your Imagination” song in the spectacular candy wonderland set with its river of chocolate, giant gummi bear trees and edible flowers and lollipops. That’s the high point of the whole movie for me.) I hate to harp on it the Oompa Loompas are simply terrifying, and nothing at all like how they are described in the book. (Although the pygmies described in the book probably would raise a whole other slew of issues.)

Those issues cannot prevent this movie from being simply wonderful though. There just are not many cautionary tale/musicals for children out there. And certainly not many with performances as captivating and entertaining as Gene Wilder’s here. It was a treat to watch this again tonight, and I’m looking forward to watching the Tim Burton re-make tomorrow.

June 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dragon Princess

May 20, 2011

Dragon Princess

I have to admit that this movie is a bit of a mess. I’m not sure if it is a result of the dubbing, or of the poor pan & scan, or if it’s because I am so debilitatingly tired or if the movie itself is really as slapdash as I felt it was as I watched it this afternoon.

What we have here is a Sonny Chiba karate movie from the seventies. The thing is that a lot of the time I felt like I should have known what was going on because it is a movie firmly rooted in the tropes of its genre. It involves revenge and a team of evil weapons masters that need to be defeated and a mysterious young man whose motives are not immediately clear and… well… a lot of concepts I’ve seen before in many an anime or martial arts movie. There’s just some kind of disconnect in the way it is presented.

For the most part this is the story of a young woman named Yumi. In the pre-credit sequence her father is brutally beaten by an evil quintet of backstabbing martial artists. (According to the dubbed dialog it is because he is up for a job as a karate instructor and the leader of the five meanies wants the job instead. I think it must have lost something in translation.) Anyhow, Yumi’s father is defeated and barely left alive. During the opening credit montage he trains his daughter relentlessly to be the greatest fighter of all time. Eventually (after many years) he dies – it is implied from the injuries he sustained at the start of the movie – and implores that Yumi avenge him.

All this is pretty standard and it’s no particular mystery where this movie is headed. Next we get to see what the evil master is up to now in Tokyo. He’s got his own dojo where he trains a big group of students by beating the crap out of them. One new student is able to hold his own against the master, and you know he’ll be back later. The dubbed dialog informs us that there’s a martial arts competition coming up and the evil Nakaido has his heart set on winning. So much so that he dispatches his four underlings to every corner of the Earth to kill the other masters signed up for the competition. (The movie begins to feel a little samey here as each rival master in turn is assassinated in a fight scene very reminiscent of the opening scene of the movie.)

There’s also a street gang that is extorting protection money from some local merchants (including our comic relief, a brightly dressed pickpocket and porn merchant.) Yumi, who has come to Tokyo to live with her grandfather, beats up the gang and attracts the attention of Nakaido, who is in cahoots with a corrupt politician and somehow involved with the gang as well. It’s unclear to me exactly what the connection is. Anyhow, the gist is that Nakaido sends his promising new pupil Masahiko to kill Yumi.

Instead Masahiko teams up with Yumi after revealing that he’s the son of a murdered police officer. They fight the five evil masters and although they survive Yumi is gravely wounded, losing the use of her left arm. She is determined to hunt down Nakaido even if it means she’ll die in the process. There’s a long scene where her grandfather begs her not to throw her life away, but pretty much tells her to go after Nakaido anyhow. Then there’s the climactic fight scene where Yumi and Masahiko confront Nakaido and his entire student body as well as his weapons masters in an overgrown field. There’s a lot of fighting and then the movie abruptly ends.

I really had trouble keeping up with this movie tonight. The fight scenes are frenetic and hand held and the cropping down of the frame to fit the movie to full screen means that a lot of action takes place off the sides of the picture, so I never really had a feel for what was going on. The movie has all the individual parts of a classic revenge action movie but for some reason they never really fit together. The strange translation and abrupt editing don’t help. (We were particularly amused by the non-sensical sex scene which appears to have been edited into the middle of the film from some other movie.)

I simply didn’t enjoy this as much as I would have liked. I can see that there is a cool movie buried in here, but it isn’t allowed to really come out to play. The end result is amusingly cheesy and more than a little bit cheap feeling. It’s so clearly not the movie it wants to be. I have to say I liked the concept more than the execution. I’d be very curious to see how different the movie is in the original Japanese and in wide screen.

May 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment